Following on from my applied research work with the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) and conceptual work on soft spaces at HafenCity University in Hamburg, I became interested in the idea of the island of Ireland as a ‘soft space’. In a book chapter, I explored the ways in which the peace process enabled the articulation of new geographies for spatial planning and regional development on the island of Ireland. With the Brexit referendum these issues of course came to the fore as it became clear that the relational network of cross-border connectivities which had emerged over the previous two decades was at risk.
In July 2017, I posted a piece on the Ireland After Nama blog, arguing that the exit of the UK from the European Union constitutes a critical moment in Irish geography, with far-reaching consequences for the island of Ireland. I was (and continue to be) convinced that there is a strong spatial dimension to Brexit which is often overlooked in the mainstream academic and policy commentary. Brexit is fundamentally about territoriality. Brexit does not simply have geographical consequences; the act of the UK leaving the EU ruptures our taken-for-granted understandings of the position of Ireland within Europe and, in relation to the UK and, perhaps most North-South relations on the island of Ireland. Brexit is metageographical. The future of ‘European space’ is at stake. All of this makes, I believe, a persuasive case for a critical and sustained engagement by geographers and other spatially inclined thinkers with the phenomenon of Brexit and its implications, both in a critical, theoretical sense, in terms of how we understand territoriality in Europe, and in an applied in sense, in terms of addressing the challenges posed by this geopolitical moment (see also Boyle et al 2018).
Since July 2017, things have of course moved on. Yet the fundamentals have remained the same. The UK formally left the EU on 31st January 2020. Yet, Brexit continues to have a Beckettian quality. ‘Leaving’ is a gradual process and there continues to be much uncertainty concerning the end of the transition period as a substantial agreement on the future relationship seems as far off as ever. Meanwhile, the current public health crisis has prompted a return to hard borders within Europe and restrictions on movement that few would have thought possible, just a few short months ago. Once again, the ideals of the European project are tested by a crisis of existential proportions. Much depends on the willingness of EU Member States to effectively demonstrate solidarity within Europe.
In May 2018, Gavan Rafferty (Ulster University) and I convened a session at the Conference of Irish Geographers in Maynooth focused on the implications of Brexit for cross-border cooperation and spatial planning on the island of Ireland. This session drew on the expertise of the International Centre for Local and Regional Development (ICLRD) in engaging with planners, policy-makers and other stakeholders at local, regional and national levels concerned with regional development and spatial planning in the border region, North and South, in the period since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The papers from this session subsequently formed the backbone of a Special Issue of Irish Geography, which has been published online just this week (official publication date November 2019). The papers explore the process and practice of creating spaces for cooperation across the Irish border, pre- and post- Brexit. Drawing on both critical theoretical debates on territoriality, soft spaces and spatial imaginaries as well as applied practical experience, the papers in the special issue highlight the scope for, but also the challenges of working with the ‘island of Ireland’ as a ‘soft space’ in the context of Brexit. It is argued that soft forms of public policy, working under the radar, in the shadow of territory should continue to play a significant role post-Brexit, but that sustained institutional and political support will be required to support these informal practices.
It is hoped that this publication will foster further critical reflection and engagement on the issues it raises as the implications of Brexit for the North-South and East-West relations become clearer.
Publications from this work:
Walsh, C. (2019) Brexit Geographies: Spatial Imaginaries and Relational Territorialities on the Island of Ireland, Irish Geography, 52(2), 137-152.
Walsh, C. & Rafferty, G. (2019) (eds.) Creating Spaces for Cooperation: Crossing Borders and Boundaries before and after Brexit, Irish Geography, 52(2), 127-135.
Walsh, C., (2015) Creating a Space for Cooperation: Soft Spaces, Spatial Planning and Territorial Cooperation on the Island of Ireland. In: Allmendinger, P., Haughton, G., Knieling J., Othengrafen, F. (eds.) Soft Spaces in Europe: Re-negotiating Governance, Boundaries and Borders, London: Routledge, 192-212.
Note: some of the above text was originally published on Ireland After Nama here